April 2, 2023

Welcoming Week NWA 2023

A successful Welcoming Week NWA 2023 brought dozens of opportunities for connection and community-building among the region’s residents – so many opportunities, in fact, that the annual event’s title is quickly becoming a misnomer.

“Really now it’s throughout the entire month of September because there is so much happening, so many people who want to participate, and we can’t fit it all in one week,” said Margot Lemaster, director of EngageNWA, the Northwest Arkansas Council’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. Conversations about how future iterations might look over several weeks, months or even year-round have already begun, she added.

Formally kicking off on Sept. 8 at the Jones Center, Welcoming Week NWA 2023 drew thousands of attendees to events that ranged from intimate to regional, including author talks, speaker panels, donation drives and festivals. A detailed impact report is available online.

Nonprofits like Canopy NWA and Operation Reboot collected scores of household item kits for refugees and homeless veterans. Speakers discussed Marshallese culture, multicultural entrepreneurship and how best to serve the region’s immigrant and refugee populations. And celebrations like the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks’ International Festival featured food, artisanship and musical and dance performances from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

EngageNWA, including belonging and bridging consultant Monica Kumar, each year partners with businesses and community groups to organize the Welcoming Week calendar, all with the goal to foster a sense of belonging for all who live and work in the region. This year’s events were sponsored by Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce, Signature Bank of Arkansas, Tyson Family Foundation, Walmart, Walton Family Foundation and Visit Bentonville.

A common theme running throughout the week’s gatherings was inspiration. Eboo Patel, an author who founded and leads Interfaith America and spoke during a lunch on Sept. 5 at The Medium in Springdale, said he finds inspiration in America’s uniquely diverse history but also in the work done in NWA hospitals, schools and grassroots community groups.

People are already learning about and helping people of different faiths, races and cultures, he said. And Northwest Arkansas is making a deliberate effort to build on that work.

“I think being a bridge-builder is one of the most important things that you can do in a democracy, and I think it’s a knowledge base and a skillset that all of us can improve at,” he said.

Casey Parks, an Oregon-based author and The Washington Post reporter covering gender and family issues, spoke a week later at The Medium as well. Her award-winning memoir, “Diary of a Misfit,” relates her own story of coming out as gay in a rural Louisiana town in 2002 and her efforts to uncover the story of Roy Hudgins, a small-town singer who, like Parks, didn’t conform to the expectations of his community.

“I wish we had had events like this when I was growing up in the South, because I always felt like I was the only one of me, and I didn’t feel welcomed,” Parks said afterward. “I feel hopeful for people who live here to know that they’re not alone.”

The Welcoming Week NWA kickoff featured a keynote by Victor Calise, director of global belonging, diversity, equity and inclusion at Walmart and a longtime public servant, Paralympian and advocate for adapting spaces for those with disabilities. He told an audience of over 100 not to be inspired simply because he’s a person using a wheelchair, but to take action, such as by connecting with the Ozark Adaptive Sports Association.

“If I’m going to inspire you to go out and do things for people with disabilities, I’ll take that,” he said.

View Impact Report